I am writing this column on the train – the one AFTER the one I was supposed to catch, as I experienced that forlorn feeling when I rushed as fast as my legs would carry me, my briefcase, coat, umbrella, and take-home kosher pizza for the kids from my business meeting in Manhattan to the train that would carry me home to my Highland Park, NJ home. As I strode confidently on to the platform, relieved that I had “just made it”, I saw the doors close before me, sudden and sure, with me on the outside of the door. I missed my planned train by something like 5 seconds, and I wasn’t happy as I mentally calculated the impact on my schedule of needing to wait for the next one.
It’s a dangerous thing, giving a writer time to sit in a train station to contemplate. I couldn’t get the image out of my head – that of the train door slamming in my face, and the sheer permanence of it. No amount of begging, waving at the conductor, crying, would have helped. I was simply on the other side of the door; the lucky ones were inside, and I was outside.
My mind flashed to my business meeting earlier in the day, which began when a man in the meeting made what was seemingly a friendly gesture – he offered half of his tuna fish sandwich to another man in the room. The other man smiled widely at the generosity but immediately declined the offer. “Let me tell you why I NEVER eat tunafish,” he said. He then proceeded to explain that when he was a child – many years ago – he had become carsick on a family trip when he reached into a bag looking for a yummy treat and instead, came up with tunafish coating his hands, and sending a wrenching smell up to his nose which led him to lose the contents of his stomach. From that moment, tunafish was a four-letter word – just the thought of it, (and especially the sight or smell of it), made him feel queasy.
Essentially, this man had become vaccinated against any lifelong enjoyment of tunafish, in one quick moment. And this, my fellow readers, is the best way I can describe how I felt, and feel every year, during the High Holiday davening that we have all recently experienced. At the ripe old age of 50, I can tell you that I was vaccinated against meaningful prayer when I was about 10, and 40 years later, I still feel that I am standing on the wrong side of the door – the one where people hold a siddur and look like they are praying, but they are disconnected, tired of standing, confused, and sad, because they don’t know how to daven, and they can’t seem to “get there” no matter how hard they try.
I was raised with the typical secular introduction to prayer – none. There was no mention of G-d in my childhood home, no Hebrew school, no role models of people who ever prayed, no understanding of the Hebrew language – and the best vaccination of all – I was forced to go to synagogue two days a year, for “Happy New Year” and Yom Kippur, where all I remember about those experiences is counting the ceiling titles, the pages left to go in the siddur, and the hours to go.
I do not blame my childhood upbringing for being “vaccinated” against meaningful prayer. I am an intelligent adult who has read hundreds of inspirational articles, books, and magazines, attended shiurum, conversed with partners in Torah, and relied upon my trusty transliterated siddur to help me manage the Hebrew in the service. I understand that prayer is an avodah and I know that working at it is a lifelong ambition.
I also know that, just like the man who to this day can’t stomach tunafish because of his childhood negative association, it is taking a lifetime of work to try to undo the entrenched negative association I have embedded in me from unhappy childhood connections – or disconnections as it were – with synagogue.
I may not ever get it right in this lifetime. For me, it might be too late, but at least my children know what it’s like to live in a house where people pray, they are learning how to pray, and more importantly why to pray at school and at home, and they go to synagogue every week, not twice a year. Even if they sometimes find prayer boring, and synagogue too long ( don’t we all), of one thing I am confident. They have a better shot at it than I do, because they were never vaccinated against it.
My time of sitting in the train – and thus the luxury of contemplation – is coming to an end. I leave you for now with one last thought that gives me pause. Some childhood experiences are so visceral and deeply felt, they enter into our children and lodge permanently somewhere in their psyche, never to be entirely shaken loose. As I am still in a contemplative mood from recent Yom Kippur introspection, I ask myself now, are my children at all vaccinated against something for which I would hope they would not have a negative association? Did it come from me?
I pray not.
Whew, I do know how to pray after all.
Syndicated newspaper advice columnist and author of twelve books, Azriela Jaffe is an international expert on entrepreneurial couples, business partnerships, handling rejection and criticism, balancing work and family, breadwinner wife and dual career issues, creating more luck and prosperity in your life, and resolving marital conflict. Her mission: “To be a catalyst for spiritual growth and comfort.”
Visit her web site here.